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Trouble Ahead

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I find it very amusing that we are being bombarded with so many absurd election year “talking points” and none of them concern the risk of a 2012 economic recession.  The entire world seems in denial about a global problem which is about to hit everyone over the head.  I’m reminded of the odd brainstorming session in September of 2008, when Presidential candidates Obama and McCain were seated at the same table with a number of econ-honchos, all of whom were scratching their heads in confusion about the financial crisis.  Something similar is about to happen again.  You might expect our leaders to be smart enough to avoid being blindsided by an adverse economic situation – again – but this is not a perfect world.  It’s not even a mediocre world.

After two rounds of quantitative easing, the Kool-Aid drinkers are sipping away, in anticipation of the “2012 bull market”.  Even the usually-bearish Doug Kass recently enumerated ten reasons why he expects the stock market to rally “in the near term”.  I was more impressed by the reaction posted by a commenter – identified as “Skateman” at the Pragmatic Capitalism blog.  Kass’ reason #4 is particularly questionable:

Mispaced preoccupation with Europe:  The European situation has improved.   .  .  .

Skateman’s reaction to Kass’ reason #4 makes more sense:

The Europe situation has not improved.  There is no escape from ultimate disaster here no matter how the deck chairs are rearranged.  Market’s just whistling past the graveyard.

Of particular importance was this recent posting by Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), wherein he emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  After presenting his readers with the most recent data supporting his claim, Mish concluded with these thoughts:

Telling banks to lend in the midst of a deepening recession with numerous austerity measures yet to kick in is simply absurd.  If banks did increase loans, it would add to bank losses.  The smart thing for banks to do is exactly what they are doing, parking cash at the ECB.

Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.

*   *   *

Don’t expect the US to be immune from a Eurozone recession and a Chinese slowdown.  Unlike 2011, it will not happen again.

Back on October 8, Jeff Sommer wrote an article for The New York Times, discussing the Economic Cycle Research Institute’s forecast of another recession:

“If the United States isn’t already in a recession now it’s about to enter one,” says Lakshman Achuthan, the institute’s chief operations officer.  It’s just a forecast.  But if it’s borne out, the timing will be brutal, and not just for portfolio managers and incumbent politicians.  Millions of people who lost their jobs in the 2008-9 recession are still out of work.  And the unemployment rate in the United States remained at 9.1 percent in September.  More pain is coming, says Mr. Achuthan.  He thinks the unemployment rate will certainly go higher.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back up into double digits,” he says.

Mr. Achuthan’s outlook was echoed by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, who pointed out in his latest Weekly Market Comment that investors have been too easily influenced by recent positive economic data such as payroll reports and Purchasing Managers Indices:

I can understand this view in the sense that the data points are correct – economic data has come in above expectations for several weeks, the Chinese, European and U.S. PMI’s have all ticked higher in the latest reports, new unemployment claims have declined, and December payrolls grew by 200,000.

Unfortunately, in all of these cases, the inference being drawn from these data points is not supported by the data set of economic evidence that is presently available, which is instead historically associated with a much more difficult outcome.  Specifically, the data set continues to imply a nearly immediate global economic downturn.  Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) has noted if the U.S. gets through the second quarter of this year without falling into recession, “then, we’re wrong.”  Frankly, I’ll be surprised if the U.S. gets through the first quarter without a downturn.

At the annual strategy seminar held by Société Générale, their head of strategy – Albert Edwards – attracted quite a bit of attention with his grim prognostications.  The Economist summarized his remarks this way:

The surprise message for investors is that he feels the US is on the brink of another recession, despite the recent signs of optimism in the data (the non-farm payrolls, for example).  The recent temporary boost to consumption is down to a fall in the household savings ratio, which he thinks is not sustainable.

Larry Elliott of The Guardian focused on what Albert Edwards had to say about China and he provided more detail concerning Edwards’ remarks about the United States:

“There is a likelihood of a China hard landing this year.  It is hard to think 2013 and onwards will be any worse than this year if China hard-lands.”

*   *   *

He added that despite the recent run of more upbeat economic news from the United States, the risk of another recession in the world’s biggest economy was “very high”.  Growth had slowed to an annual rate of 1.5% in the second and third quarters of 2011, below the “stall speed” that historically led to recession.  It was unlikely that the economy would muddle through, Edwards said.

So there you have it.  The handwriting is on the wall.  Ignore it at your peril.


 

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European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80’s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


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A Bad Week For Rupert Murdoch

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We all know how this awful week began.  For Rupert Murdoch, one of his prized investments — Sarah Palin — had become the subject of heated debate.  Murdoch’s News Corp publishes her ghost-written books and Palin works for News Corp’s Fox News as a contributor.  While a team of doctors in Tucson heroically scrambled to save the life of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a team of spin doctors at Fox News scrambled to save the political life of Sarah Palin.  At this point, I defer to an excellent piece written by Glynnis MacNicol of The Business Insider:

It is clear that Palin spent the last few days testing the waters and leaving the heavy lifting of the defending her to the folks at Fox News, most notably Glenn Beck.

As Ms. MacNicol explained, Palin returned to her Facebook page on January 12:

In equally typical fashion, Palin offered little introspection into her role in the political dialogue of the past year and laid the blame directly at the feet of the media, whom she accused of “blood libel.”

As MacNicol and many other commentators pointed out, this choice of words exemplified yet another classic Palin mistake.  Palin’s gaffe drew criticism from the Anti-Defamation League and it gave her critics yet another opportunity to emphasize that Palin has been in over her head with her attempts to establish a national leadership identity.  The Hill quoted what Representative James Clyburn had to say about Palin’s latest misstep:

“You know, Sarah Palin just can’t seem to get it, on any front. I think she’s an attractive person, she is articulate,” Clyburn said on the Bill Press radio show. “But I think intellectually, she seems not to be able to understand what’s going on here.”

While Rupert Murdoch’s investment in Sarah Palin was obviously deteriorating and becoming an embarrassment for his Fox News organization, things were headed in a more catastrophic direction in his Australian homeland.  The intense flooding that had been ongoing for the past several weeks was being attributed to climate change.  A report from Reuters began with this statement:

Climate change has likely intensified the monsoon rains that have triggered record floods in Australia’s Queensland state, scientists said on Wednesday, with several months of heavy rain and storms still to come.

Although Murdoch now personally admits that climate change poses a serious environmental threat, his News Corp subsidiaries have an established track record of denying that any such threat exists.

An article from the Treehugger website provided details about how badly conditions had deteriorated in Queensland:

When 75% of Queensland is disaster declared due to flooding, that is a huge area, roughly equivalent to two Texas’s or the entirety of South Africa.  On the 31st of December Reuters was saying flood water was “covering an area bigger than France and Germany combined, inundating 22 towns and stranding 200,000 people.”  This is a continually unfolding natural disaster, of which the financial bill alone was projected to reach $5 billion AUD, and that was before the flash flooding of the past day or so.

*   *   *

Australia is a rich, industrialised ‘First World’ country.  But it’s third most populous state, Queensland, is currently coping with floods which have already decimated food crops, livestock, road and rail infrastructure, mining and so on.  The impacts of which will flow on (pardon the pun) to effect most every Australian. Already some particular fruits have all but disappeared from commercial markets.

If all that weren’t bad enough, what must have been the most chilling news for Rupert Murdoch came from Julian Assange of Wikileaks.  Ian Burrell of The Independent provided this report:

A year that has begun badly for Rupert Murdoch grew a little worse yesterday after the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, claimed to be in possession of secret documents damaging to the media mogul and his News Corp empire.

Mr Assange told John Pilger in the New Statesman he had withheld a cache of confidential US government cables and files relating to Mr Murdoch’s business as “insurance”.  He has claimed that his life is in danger if he is extradited to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault.

*   *   *

Mr Assange indicated that he had paperwork which could be hurtful to News Corp.  “There are 504 US embassy cables on one broadcasting organisation and there are cables on Murdoch and News Corp.”

Assange does lots of talking about documents he is holding as “insurance”.  Nevertheless, many commentators have mentioned the possibility all this boasting could amount to nothing more than a bluffing strategy.

In addition to discussing the Wikileaks threat, the Independent article provided us with the perspective of a former Murdoch associate on the possibility that Rupert might not be too happy with the way things are going at Fox News:

In a further broadside yesterday, one of Mr Murdoch’s former henchmen, Andrew Neil, publicly questioned whether the world’s most powerful media figure retained his grip over his organisation.

*   *   *

“My own view is [Fox] is out of control,” Neil told Richard Bacon yesterday on BBC Radio 5 Live.  “I think Rupert Murdoch has lost control of it. I know from sources he’s not happy with a lot that appears on it and I think he’s lost over the Glenn Becks and the O’Reillys,” said Mr Neil.

“[Murdoch] is uncomfortable with Glenn Beck and various other positions they take and some of the things they say.”  Neil, who fell out with Mr Murdoch in the early Nineties, claimed he had “very good sources at the heart of News Corp”.

If there is any truth to Andrew Neil’s revelations, it will be very interesting to see if Mr. Murdoch makes any changes at Fox News, due to his reported concerns.  Either way, 2011 could turn out to be a very important year for Rupert Murdoch.


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